What if? What if the leaders in the industry could find a way to unleash the potential of their imagination and dream up totally new ways to transform how bakeries operate in the years to come? What if some of the best minds in the industry came together to think completely out of the box about how to solve the everyday challenges they face related to their operations with new equipment designs? What if they then began a journey that explores how to reinvent the future?

And what if there were no limits — no concerns about costs or what’s even practical in this day and age?

Those were the guiding principles behind Dreamspace, a heady research project commissioned by BEMA and Baking & Snack magazine. Last November, current and former bakery members on BEMA’s Baking Industry Forum (BIF) panel participated in a focus group in Cincinnati, OH. The panel was urged to journey beyond business as usual and discover how to transform the baking industry over the next decade — just as Apple, Inc. altered the way people now listen to music, watch movies, conduct business and communicate with families and friends on a real-time basis during the past 10 years.

“We asked our BIF members to think of themselves as the Steve Jobs of the baking industry, to reach out into the edges of what’s possible with equipment R&D and to think of what’s not available and what should be available,” said Marjorie Troxel Hellmer, president of Kansas City, MO-based Cypress Research Associates, which conducted the 2-hour focus group.

BIF members and Cypress Research came up with 25 current operational challenges facing the baking industry and proposed future solutions in equipment design or features, technology and communications, energy, maintenance and reliability, and sanitation and food safety. In February, Cypress Research conducted two separate online industry surveys — one of bakers and the other of equipment suppliers — and asked respondents to rate the importance of these challenges and solutions.

At BEMA’s Winter Summit in March, the BIF panel discussed the surveys’ findings. The bottom line: Bakers want equipment that’s easier to clean and simpler to maintain. They are looking to reduce downtime and streamline changeovers. They are seeking ways to prevent workers’ injuries and potential for costly recalls. If possible, BIF members want to use smartphone and emerging tablet technology that gathers data from sensors on motors and other parts of equipment to prevent premature failures.

Everyday issues such as reducing labor or increasing capacity — while historically a priority in the capital investment decision-making process — didn’t come up at all in the survey. That’s because the focus group centered its attention specifically on the future.

 “Very few of our ideas that we came up with involved running production faster and with fewer people on the line,” Jeffrey Teasdale, a baker and BIF member, told BEMA members. “We’ve all found a way to get the low-hanging fruit out of our systems. The direct labor on commercial lines is almost down to as far as it can get. Our costs are getting more important to control off the line with maintenance and sanitation. They have become almost more important than driving up line speeds and saving labor.”

Avoiding costly downtime

According to the industry surveys, both bakers and equipment suppliers believe the biggest problem involves the maintenance and reliability of equipment. In fact, bakers gave the issue a 6.2 average rating on a 7-point scale where 7 means very valuable. Equipment suppliers also scored it similarly high with a 6 average rating.

Specifically, the current challenge revolves around lagging diagnostics for maintenance indicators. The future solution would require integrated, real-time diagnostics for maintenance. Such a solution emphasizes the need for predictive indicators for maintenance as well as accurate forecasts of when parts may wear out. When motors or bearings begin to fail, the situation can lead to a chain of problems. Matters cascade rapidly. Downtime may cause injuries when operators and engineers try to repair the system quickly, wanting to get the operation up and running fast, noted Kerwin Brown, BEMA’s president and CEO, after panel discussion.

“If bakers can get out in front with leading indicators instead of lagging indicators, they can avoid being in chaos mode, and our bakeries are going to be safer,” he said. “In our industry, we now have people interacting with equipment, moving [safety] guards and clearing jams. We are replacing parts before they fail to reduce the requirement for people to interact with moving equipment.”

Dave Hipenbecker, another BIF baker member, wondered, what if equipment came with sensors that could signal a potential problem when a gear box’s temperature or motor’s vibration becomes excessive? “All of a sudden it’s getting to a critical point, and it sends out a message to the maintenance department that says, ‘Motor 136 has a problem. It’s overheating,’ ” he observed. “It’s reaching that critical stage, and we know we need to do something so the system just doesn’t fail. We would have the opportunity to take some time, look at the problem, analyze it and plan for it to be down so we can replace it.”

Instead of spending money on costly human-machine interface (HMI) technology, BIF members wondered, what if smartphone and tablet computer apps could check machines for reliability and potential maintenance issues?

“What about if you walk up to a machine and your app would check the run-to-failure rate and how far these parts are in the cycle time so that you could predict when they needed to be replaced?” Mr. Brown said. Maintenance personnel can check if the parts are in stock. If not, the app would prompt the operator to electronically order the necessary parts. Then the app can quote a price, and after confirming the order, the operator can go back on the floor.”

This solution would prevent downtime and improve the efficiency of the maintenance department. “Engineers should be able to walk around the bakery with their smartphone or tablet and have the ability to communicate with their equipment,” Mr. Brown noted.

Downtime can cost some bakeries an average of $9,000 per hour per line, added Ken Schwenger, a BIF member and equipment supplier. That includes not only labor costs but also lost runtime and increased ingredient costs from products damaged by production line stoppages. At a time when many retailers and food service customers put pressure on bakers to lower prices and improve operating efficiencies, many bakeries already operate in an environment where few can afford unexpected equipment failures.

The technology exists to streamline maintenance procedures, Mr. Schwenger told BEMA members. “We should all be able to do this within a year or so with the iPad or tablet technology,” he said.

Equipment companies also need to know as soon as a system starts to malfunction, noted Don Osborne, another supplier on the BIF panel. “We need to be able to remotely diagnose what’s going on with a machine from a supplier’s location,” he said.

Making bakeries safer

Both employee and food safety ranked high in the industry survey. Specifically, equipment guards that protect operators from hazards present a challenge. The solution would be to design equipment without hazards and eliminate the need for guards. In addition to improved safety, removing the need for guards would reduce maintenance.

Bakers rated this solution an average of 6.3 out of 7, while equipment suppliers gave it a 5.4 average rating. Ms. Troxel Hellmer pointed out that this represents a significant statistical gap between the two groups. To explain the differences in perception, Mr. Teasdale suggested suppliers may believe their machines are safely designed, but because bakeries often use equipment from multiple suppliers, the industry needs to integrate the safety features, machine to machine. “We often need to put up guards around junction points in the line,” he noted.

Mr. Brown added that the industry may have to approach the issue from a short- and long-term perspective. Some fixes — such as monitoring the integration of safety features on equipment — can be done today, but bakers and suppliers need ongoing dialogue to design out other safety issues in the future. In the near term, either the baker or equipment supplier must identify somebody early on in the project to be responsible for a final safety checkup.

“In the unlikely event someone gets hung up in those machines, the operator should have some level of security in knowing that when they hit that [emergency stop], all action halts,” Mr. Brown added. “In many cases, one machine will stop, but the other will not. Industry suppliers need to work together to integrate equipment on a production line and adopt the mindset that safety is not merely a competitive advantage.”

 But how can guards and current safety systems lead to other problems? “If you look at the guarding we have today, it inhibits operator access to the machinery and limits visibility,” Mr. Hipenbecker said. “The guards are hard to clean. You take them off, and they get lost or bent so they never seem to go back on right after a couple of times. If we can design equipment to the best of our ability right up front, we don’t have to deal with the guards.”

Mr. Hipenbecker added the food industry is unlikely to come up with a non-allergenic peanut, thus enhanced efforts will be required for sanitary design such as removing fasteners and other catch points to reduce allergen hiding places and pathogen contamination. “We need to figure out how to clean more efficiently,” he said. “How can we cut our changeover times? What materials are out there that we historically haven’t looked at or never thought about looking at?”

Benchmarking and training

Many solutions to current challenges might be found by turning to other industries, according to Mr. Osborne. “Are there opportunities to benchmark against other industries that have the same type of problems and may have a solution for them that we don’t?” he asked. “Are there other industries that have tackled these problems and have been more successful than we have?”

During the past three years, the grain-based foods industry adopted many food safety standards from the meat, dairy and supermarket industries and adapted them to improve the sanitary design of bakery equipment, Mr. Brown noted.

BEMA and eight other baking and food groups just held the annual Sanitary Design Workshop for Allergen/Pathogen Control, where bakers, snack manufacturers and equipment suppliers from the some of the largest players in the industry shared best practices to ensure food safety and minimize the time it takes to clean a bakery properly.

“Even if you take one hour per week out of cleaning equipment, that’s still 52 hours in downtime that you potentially save in a year,” Mr. Brown said. “What’s that worth in lost labor and improved production efficiencies? When you’re running 180 loaves a minute, how much does that one hour down really cost you?”

Groups of bakers and suppliers also have met dozens of times during the past year with Sage Food Safety Consultants, Cincinnati, OH, to review and update the ANSI/Z50.2 Standard for the sanitary design of bakery equipment. Revising the standard continues to be an ongoing project, and it’s something the baking industry needs to reduce the rash of recalls that plagued the industry in 2011, according to Gale Prince, head of the consulting group. Greater integration along with communication is needed to move the industry forward.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. If you really focus on an issue, you’ll see progress all around,” Mr. Brown said. “This project is about bringing people together who have a greater amount of expertise and knowledge on many of the challenges we face. If equipment suppliers are isolated in their facilities and operating in a vacuum, they aren’t interacting with their end users. Equipment suppliers need to bring in bakers to consult with them on building better systems.”

The Dreamspace project, Mr. Brown added, served as a launching point to get bakers and suppliers to discuss critical operational issues and create “a rising tide that raises all boats,” especially in areas of employee and food safety. He said he hopes that the industry will see many of these critical issues addressed during the International Baking Industry Exposition, which runs Oct. 6-9, 2013, in Las Vegas, NV.

“It’s difficult to conceptualize what’s not there and think of things no one has thought up before,” Mr. Brown observed. “Maybe it took doing the research to get everyone to start thinking a little bit differently about what the challenges are today, to take that first step and try to explore what solutions might be available in the future. You just can’t come up with the future by just asking a simple question. It takes a lot of research to dig much deeper into the issues today to explore the solutions for tomorrow.”